Analysis: How the Notre Dame football brand took a hit over the past two weeks

Mike Berardino
ND Insider
Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig answers questions during a press conference ahead of the Rose Bowl NCAA college football game against Penn State Friday, Dec. 30, 2022, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

SOUTH BEND — There's a well-worn phrase, “Perception is reality.” For better or worse — mostly worse — it can be hard to disprove, especially in the mind-warping echo chamber of the social media era.

When it comes to Notre Dame football’s frenzied February, however, and just how quickly the dominoes of its assistant coaching search went flying wildly off the table, the words of contemporary author Bernard Kelvin Clive seem resonant.

“Brands,” the international consultant and motivational speaker is known to say, “are mostly defined by perceptions.”

More:Digging into reported hires of OC Gerad Parker and QB coach Gino Guidugli

From a Notre Dame athletics perspective — depending on where you fall on the spectrum that runs from blind fealty to intractable skepticism — the public perception is that the Golden Dome isn’t quite as shiny today as it was before offensive coordinator Tommy Rees boarded that private plane Alabama sent for him and his play-calling expertise just over two weeks ago.

Moreover, for those who interpret body language and deconstruct timelines with equal fervor, a fear/hope of trouble in paradise has bubbled up before Marcus Freeman has even had a chance to consolidate the gains of his Year 1 turnaround.

That inconvenient truth will be hard to outrun, no matter how many “Field of Dreams” references athletic director Jack Swarbrick drops in his “reply-all” attempts at damage control.

“In business, when a critical decision had resulted in a poor outcome, we first focused on the process,” Tom Mendoza, billionaire booster and namesake of Notre Dame’s College of Business, posted on his Twitter account Wednesday. “If it was flawed, we fixed it. In this case, it was clearly flawed.”

What if?

The fallout that surrounded the failed attempt to use hockey diplomacy on Son of Utah Andy Ludwig won’t dissipate easily, no matter how well the expected pairing of Gerad Parker and Gino Guidugli, fallback choices as caretakers of the Irish offense, performs this fall.

Parker, 42, was announced Saturday as Rees' replacement at offensive coordinator after coaching Notre Dame tight ends last season. Guidugli, the Wisconsin assistant who spent the previous six seasons on staff at Cincinnati, interviewed for Notre Dame quarterbacks coach on Thursday "with the expectation" he would be hired, according to a person with direct knowledge.

Sam Hartman, the record-setting quarterback who transferred in from Wake Forest, could end up at the Downtown Athletic Club as Notre Dame’s first Heisman Trophy finalist in more than a decade and still there could be an undercurrent of “What if?”

Dec 23, 2022; Tampa, Florida, USA; Wake Forest Demon Deacons quarterback Sam Hartman (10) celebrates after beating the Missouri Tigers in the 2022 Gasparilla Bowl at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

What if Rees had stayed to help Hartman fulfill the vision that lured him away from the NFL Draft pool and out of the transfer portal?

What if offensive line coach Harry Hiestand had put off his second retirement for one last year spent working with bookend NFL prospect tackles Joe Alt and Blake Fisher?

Even if both of those outcomes now seem unavoidable, Swarbrick himself seemed to believe staff stability would be a 2023 strength as recently as mid-December.

“I expect to have the staff back,” Swarbrick said on the GoJo podcast with the two Golics, Mike Sr. and Mike Jr. “There’s a better understanding of who we are and how we should approach it.”

So much for that insider’s read on the situation.

FILE - Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick attends an NCAA college basketball game between Notre Dame and Mount St. Mary's on Nov. 13, 2017, in South Bend, Ind. Swarbrick says the coming Big Ten television contract with NBC is a "perfect" way for the network to complement its deal with the Fighting Irish during a live online chat for the university's alumni association on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin, File)

By late January, less than a month after the sloppy-but-entertaining Gator Bowl win over South Carolina, graduate assistant and linebacker whisperer James Laurinaitis was headed back to Ohio State in the same capacity.

Maybe that seemed inevitable too, considering the former Big Ten Network broadcaster was a three-time All-American in Columbus, but it still had to sting for Freeman to lose his former Ohio State teammate as a daily sounding board and resource.

The drama around Rees’ departure unfolded the following week.

Apr 23, 2022; Notre Dame, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees talks to quarterback Drew Pyne (10) during warmups before the Blue-Gold Game at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas State was somehow able to spin young Collin Klein’s brief flirtation with Notre Dame as a victory when it wasn’t even clear that the up-and-coming offensive coordinator’s two-day visit to South Bend was anything more than a get-acquainted interview.

The fact that Freeman, Klein and Parker all share an agent can’t be ignored, especially in the perception game, but how much importance should one assign that?   

Contract details

Ludwig, 58, became the second of three known candidates that ultimately interviewed. Parker, the only in-house candidate with any play-calling experience, batted third on Valentine’s Day once the crumbling of Ludwig's courtship broke Irish hearts.

Parker, who previously worked with Freeman at Purdue (2013-16) and briefly at Cincinnati (2017), sat with Ludwig and Freeman at the trio’s public outing to watch Notre Dame play Ohio State in hockey on the night of Feb. 10.

Notre Dame offensive coordinator candidate Andy Ludwig, second from left (top row), takes in a Notre Dame hockey game Friday, Feb. 10 at the Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend. Seated next to him is Irish tight ends coach Gerad Parker (left) and ND head football coach Marcus Freeman (right). Ludwig is currently the OC at Utah.

By that Sunday there was Hiestand’s news-dump retirement minutes before kickoff at the Super Bowl. The timing of that move remains a head-scratcher, but the perception is that Ludwig had by then made it clear he preferred that nine-year Utes assistant Jim Harding join him in the move to Notre Dame.

“Simply (put), before anyone is out in a plane or shown in public as ‘the guy,’ all facts should be known and the decision agreed upon,” Mendoza added Wednesday in a three-part Twitter thread. “Clearly that was not the case & the result was a very bad look for all involved on ND’s side.”

Harding, 44, had just under two years left on a 2022 contract extension that paid him $650,000 a year. According to USA Today’s Assistant Coach Salaries database, which obtained a copy of Harding’s contract that the South Bend Tribune and was able to review, the voluntary termination provision called for Harding to repay the university 75% of the remaining value on his contract.

With roughly $1.275 million left on Harding’s fixed-term deal, he would owe $956,250 to his employers at Utah. Those so-called “liquidated damages” could be repaid in monthly installments over the remainder of the term, which would somewhat lower the net present value of the deferred repayment.

In Ludwig’s February 2022 contract extension, a copy of which the Tribune/ also reviewed, the “liquidated damages” would be calculated over the remaining three-year rolling horizon term. Ludwig’s base salary was bumped from $1.2 million to $1.3 million on Feb. 1, and his contract called for additional base-salary increases along with retention bonuses as the contract progressed.

Leaving aside future salary increases outlined in the contract, Ludwig was owed a minimum of $3.85 million in future base salary as of mid-February. Seventy-five percent of that comes to $2.887,500 in liquidated damages, and that payment could be made in a lump sum or spread over a 36-month installment term.

For Notre Dame to hire both Ludwig and Harding away from Utah, the buyout provisions would have totaled more than $3.8 million.

According to the contract, Ludwig would not owe those damages if he “assume(d) a coaching position with the NFL or a head coach position with another Division I football program within one year of the termination.”

Again, there would be a net-present value adjustment to consider, and we haven’t even mentioned the different rates for individual state income tax in Utah (4.85%) and Indiana (3.23%).

Andy Ludwig - Offensive Coordinator talks with is players during Vanderbilt's first football practice of preseason camp
Friday Aug. 3, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn.

The voluntary termination provision for Ludwig was broken down into two parts: If his departure took place during the tenure of head coach Kyle Whittingham, for whom Ludwig also worked at Utah from 2005-08, or if Ludwig opted to leave “within three months of a new head football coach assuming leadership.”

In the latter case, Ludwig would not be obligated to pay any liquidated damages, the contract states.

Whittingham, 63, faces annual questions about his potential retirement from coaching, even after taking the Utes to two straight Rose Bowl appearances. Ludwig reportedly met with Whittingham on Feb. 13 after the latter returned from the Super Bowl in Arizona, but no suitable exit strategy was achieved.  

Back in South Bend, the search continued, and the international brand of Notre Dame football suffered.

Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.